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Provo • The moment Taylor Sander agreed to attend BYU, the probability of the school earning a fourth NCAA championship in men's volleyball increased dramatically.
Sander, a freshman from Norco, Calif., who will certainly become an All-American, has met nearly every expectation, including a few early bumps in the classroom.
"He's played so much volleyball, he's beyond his years in the skill level he presents," said BYU coach Rob Nielson, who is preparing the Cougars for Saturday's quarterfinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. "There's not a lot of players in our league who have that type of athleticism."
That's quite a statement, considering that the MPSF, from top to bottom, is the nation's most competitive men's volleyball league. Yet Sander, a slender 6-foot-4 outside hitter with springs in his heels, shrugs off the praise, confident in his own ability as well as those of his teammates.
"I just like playing volleyball," he said. "I don't feel pressure at all. If I have a bad night, I know others will step up."
BYU (20-7), the tournament's No. 2 seed, plays No. 7 seed UC Santa Barbara (14-14) at 7 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse.
The second-ranked Cougars' balanced offensive attack is backed by a relentless defensive wall at the net. BYU is the best blocking team in the tournament, led by Futi Tavana's 1.50 blocks a game.
Sander averages 3.66 kills a set and hits at a sparkling .348 percentage. What sets Sander apart, though, is his volleyball maturity. He is a freshman in age only.
"We've been excited to see what college brings [to his game]," said Sander's mother, Kera, who along with father Steven introduced their three children to the sport. "He always excels more when he's being pushed."
A veteran of the beach volleyball circuit, Sander was also the captain of the USA Youth National Team that competed for the 2009 World Championship in Italy. Before that, his Norco High team won the 2009 CIF Division 3 title match, and he earned school and league MVP honors.
The highly recruited Sander picked BYU for several reasons.
"I loved everything about BYU," he said. "I liked the LDS atmosphere.
"There are cute girls."
How could life be any better?
Well, as Sander discovered early on, the adjustment to university life also included the classroom. More to the point, getting to the classroom.
Nielson was forced to bench his young star several times early this season.
"I was excited he chose BYU," Kera said. "He could have gone anywhere and could have gotten off scot-free with any of them. We knew BYU would be a challenge. It's better he had his lesson early rather than later.
"He'd stay up to 2 a.m. working on a paper, then miss class in the morning."
Sander, faced with the loss of volleyball, knew a change was needed. "I'm working things out," he said. "This is not high school."
Certainly, Nielson understands the potential Sander brings to his team. He knows the kid who fell in love with the sport at age 12 brings an added dimension to the court.
"I'm just excited to see what he could bring to the team," Nielson said. "He had so much to offer. 'Wow, he can really help us go to the next level.' "
Taylor Sander file
• Sander was the captain of the 2009 USA Youth National Team..
• The 6-foot-4 outside hitter is second on BYU in kill average (3.66 per game) and total kills (326).
• Sander was recruited by USC, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State and UC Irvine.
UC Santa Barbara (14-14)at BYU (20-7)
P At the Smith Fieldhouse, ProvoSaturday, 7 p.m.